The two David Camerons

It has taken a long time to get here, but at last David Cameron has delivered his big Europe speech. Judging by the generally broad grins of Tory Eurosceptics being wheeled out on rolling news channels, he at least seems to have been successful in appeasing elements of his party. Whether Cameron's strategy is ultimately successful though - and how it will influence his page in the history books - is an entirely different matter.

It has now become very apparent that there are two very distinct David Camerons. What is interesting about today's events is that both of them were prominently on display. The first is an idealist, a man who sees himself as the visionary leader of a one nation party rooted in the liberal-conservative centre of British politics. This version of Cameron thrives on big gesture politics, and has been most evident during the 2006 leadership campaign, and then again when making the coalition offer to the Liberal Democrats in 2010. In contrast, the second David Cameron is more instinctively conservative, risk-averse and focused on relatively short term electoral and partisan calculations. This version of David Cameron has perhaps been most evident in his dealings with his own party.

That both David Camerons played a role today is evident in the rather prescient comment made in The Guardian liveblog on the speech that while this was probably the most Eurosceptic speech ever made by a British Prime Minister, it was also probably the most pro-European speech made by David Cameron. And while short-term electoral and partisan calculation are clearly involved in what Cameron has argued, there is also a more idealistic idea being articulated as well - namely the desire to win an in-out referendum (after a successful renegotiation process, obviously), in the process laying to rest the most virulent strand of Tory Euroscepticism that has dogged Conservative leaders for a quarter of a century, and settling the European question for at least a generation.

What is already very clear though is that this is a massive gamble for Cameron and for Britain. European leaders and foreign ministers are queuing up to say that what Cameron suggested today is unacceptable. One interesting insight into the potential pitfalls faced by Cameron now is found in David Marquand's Britain Since 1918, an excellent history of the British constitution that I have just finished reading. Marquand's arguments are instructive on two levels as to how this situation might develop.

First, Marquand notes that British diplomacy has traditionally failed in Europe because it has not appreciated the weakness of its position. This goes back as far as the original European Coal and Steel Community, and Britain's refusal to join, followed by subsequent attempts to join the EEC under Macmillan. The error made here was to attempt negotiations from ground up, with Britain's equal status assumed. This neglected the fact that other members of the EEC had already been through an extended process of negotiation while Britain stood aloof. It is no coincidence Marquand argues that the British application was only successful when Heath took a new approach - broadly accepting the rules of the club as fixed in order to win admission.

But Marquand also offers a possible course of action for Cameron. After all, we have been here before. Prior to the two election of 1974, Harold Wilson's Labour Party promised a renegotiation of Britain's membership of the EEC if elected, followed by a referendum on the outcome. Much like Cameron, Wilson claimed to be pro-European, and took this stance to appease the ideologues in his own party. In practice though, Wilson's renegotiation amended tiny details of the Britain's relationship with the EEC (tariff exceptions for the import of New Zealand butter and suchlike), yet was haled as a massive coup by Wilson. Whether Cameron could pull a similar trick is open to question, but this might be one possible course of action open to the Conservatives after a 2015 election.

But this is a dangerous game of political brinkmanship. And indeed, this may prove to be the supreme irony of Cameron's premiership. Writing about recent history, Marquand reminds us just what a constitutionally radical government Labour offered, especially between 1997 and 2001, when devolution occurred and House of Lords reform took place. This constitutional reform was far from perfect; indeed, in some ways it was downright flawed - the West Lothian question rumbles on, unaddressed, and House of Lords reform remains a half finished work-in-progress. Yet, in broad terms, Labour undoubtedly achieved what it set out to do.

Labour were followed in office by Cameron, the self-confessed constitutional conservative. Yet, thanks to one referendum, he might be the unionist who oversees the dissolution of the union, and thanks to another referendum, he might be the premier who, while doubtless a sceptic, claims to be in favour of Britain's membership of the European Union, but leads Britain out of the EU. It is one thing to achieve constitutional goals with and leave some mess behind, as Labour did. It is quite another to make a mark on the history of the British constitution wholly through unintended consequences.

Imagining the internet

My liveblog of my colleague Robin Mansell's lecture on her new book Imagining the Internet, published by OUP.

View the story "Imagining the Internet, 16 October 2012" on Storify

Can we talk about this?

On Saturday, I went to the National Theatre to see what The Telegraph had termed the riskiest piece of theatre of the year, DV8’s Can We Talk About This? The performance occupies an unusual genre, halfway between theatre and dance (what is normally termed physical theatre), but also taps into the recent trend towards verbatim performances (such as London Road and The Colour of Justice), which have on interviews or transcripts of public hearings. In this case, this approach is used to dramatise an historical narrative going back to 1985. The various examples offered construct a polemic - seemingly - arguing that liberalism (or perhaps more accurately, liberals) has failed to respond effectively to the challenge posed by radical Islam. Instead, in the UK, state-multiculturalism has led only to hand wringing and an inability to respond directly to a challenge posed to fundamental rights, notably freedom of speech.

The play has generally got quite good reviews.[1] I can certainly understand the critics' admiration of the performers' skills - there is something truly remarkable about watching some of the movement that they undertake, while retaining the modulation and tone of an interview with, for example, Ann Cryer MP. The embedded videos give am indication as to the kind of feats the actors achieve.

But the good reviews are not just about the artistic merits of the piece. A number of reviewers have suggested that the piece is politically hugely important. When the piece opened in Sydney, for example, the city's edition of Time Out branded it "[O]ne of the most important works of our age".[2] Certainly, Lloyd Newson, the Artistic Director of DV8 sees the play's purpose as political, judging by interviews he has given on the subject.

Here though, I think I would have to contest the position of many of the reviewers, and offer the counter opinion that Can We Talk About?, struck me as being - at best - deeply politically deeply flawed, and - at worst - dangerous to the very liberalism it claims to espouse.

There are a few problems. First, the central conceit of the play - that it is saying the unsayable - seems overstated and not really related to reality. In fact, the arguments in the play actually feel a bit dated. Journalists such as Nick Cohen and the late Christopher Hitchens adopted similar positions a number of years ago.[3] So it is certainly not a radically new position intellectually. More importantly, state multiculturalism has now been attacked by David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel.[4] It is rather harder to claim to be radical and liberal when your position is also backed up by the three most powerful leaders in Europe, who also happen to be the three most powerful conservative politicians in the world. Certainly, it should come as no surprise that the biggest cheer leaders for Can We Talk About This? in the British press were the Telegraph and the Mail.[5. Indeed, the arguments made by the play have some far more extreme fellow travellers, as the liberal values vs. Islam clash is now a staple element of rhetoric for Europe's far right, including the BNP in the UK, Le Front National in France and the various far-right Dutch factions that have been electorally successful since 2000. The lack of sophistication and nuance in the way the play handles its topic can only provide succour to such groups, and seems perhaps the most irresponsible thing about the whole enterprise.]

All that said, there are still important questions to be asked about the future of liberalism, and there certainly is space for thoughtful consideration of these issues. Sadly, we do not get that from this play. The narrative structure that is offered draws together distinct events, creating a false synchronicity between them. This is perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the play. Can we really link a debate about education in 1985, abandoned plans to show Geert Wilder's far right short film Fitna at the House of Lords, the Pakistani government's stance at the UN, and forced marriage in contemporary Britain? All are distinct issues, yet are shown with a moral equivalence (expressed symbolically through writing words and phrases on a wall at the back of the stage), placed into a broader thesis about the failure of British policy to cope with radical Islam. What is perhaps most disturbing about this is that it binds the various actors - Muslim parents in Bradford, Muslim members of the House of Lords, the Pakistan government etc - together, casting Islam as a conspiratorial ideology, an enemy within. There is little or no acknowledgement of nuance or complexity, and certainly no reference to the Arab Spring, which may yet lead to the most significant challenge to radical politicised Islam. As such, the Islam portrayed in Can We Talk About This? is monolithic and only contested internally in a limited (and brutally repressed) fashion. As such, Safraz Manzoor is right to note that it becomes a bit like an all-dance version of Melanie Phillip's Londonistan, all paranoia and generalisation.[5]

These content issues are deeply troubling, placing the play closer to the forces of reaction than of liberalism. But suppose we take Newson at is word when he claims he is seeking to defend liberalism? Measured in those terms, is the play likely to be successful? Not really, I would contest, because it fails to systematically address the complexities of liberalism, either historically or theoretically. Historically, the liberal bargain has always been a balancing act, integrating seemingly mutually exclusive groups and beliefs. As such, liberalism is always work in progress, being redefined to meet the needs of each age.[6] But one would not get this sense from DV8's work. Instead, liberalism would seem as monolithic and fixed as Islam. This historical misrepresentation heightens the idea embedded in the narrative that Islam is somehow alien or incompatible with innate western values, making this a Huntingtonesque piece of work.[7]

Even theoretically, I am not sure if the model of liberalism Can We Talk About This? inevitably leads one to is very attractive. It bares a close resemblance to what scholar Christian Joppk  has termed "repressive liberalism".[8] This model of liberalism, now an important element of western debate, is more muscular and combative.

Crucially, repressive liberalism sees no contradiction in using illiberal laws to defend liberalism. The classic example of such a measure is the French government's ban on burqas and niqabs. This measure was defended on the grounds that dress of this kind was used to repress women. Liberal philosopher Will Kymlica has pointed out the flaw in this argument, however: such laws are inherently illiberal, as they remove the right of a woman to choose to wear particular forms of Islamic dress in public. Essentially, one illiberal arrangement (familial power forcing women to wear certain clothes) is replaced with another (the state using the full force of its legal authority to prevent people wearing certain clothes). Neither arrangement is liberal. Instead, the challenge for a liberal society is to ensure that everyone has the autonomous freedom to choose what to wear. The whole Clash of Civilisations narrative promulgated in Can We Talk About This? moves debate away from that outcome, not towards it.

[1] See The Telegraph, The Evening Standard, The Mail, 13/03/2012
[2] Time Out, 25/08/2011
[3] See Hitchens, C. 2001. Of Sin, the Left & Islamic Fascism, The Nation, 09/01; Cohen, N. 2007. What's Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way. Fourth Estate: London
[4] David Cameron's speech to the Munich Security Conference in February 2011 is probably the most powerful example of the three]
[5] Phillips, M. 2006. Londonistan: How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within. Gibson Square Books Ltd: London
[6] For some of my earlier thoughts on this issue, see this blog entry on secularism
[7] Huntington, S.P. 1997. The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order. Simon Schuster: New York.
[8] Joppke, C. 2007. “Beyond national models: civic integration policies for immigrants in Western Europe”, West European Politics 30(1), 1-22.
[9] For a succinct overview of Kymlica's thoughts in this area, see this 2008 article.

The rhetoric of tough talk

Politicians love to appear tough. Sometimes, this means saying things that we don’t want to hear, dealing in hard truths. Or so they claim at least.

There have been two prominent examples of such rhetoric in recent weeks. In the UK, Labour leader Ed Miliband was booed (although perhaps not as much as the media would have us believe) at the TUC conference. What bought about this reaction? This passage from Miliband’s speech drew particular ire:

I fully understand why millions of decent public sector workers feel angry. But while negotiations were going on, I do believe it was a mistake for strikes to happen. I continue to believe that. But what we need now is meaningful negotiation to prevent further confrontation over the autumn.

In trade union baiting of this kind, Miliband was following a well-trodden path. Tony Blair never seemed more comfortable than when lecturing the Labour Party, his brothers and sisters in the international social democratic family, or the union movement on the need to modernize or die.

Compare this with the second example of a tough talking politician. As noted in Slate Rick Perry clearly likes to shoot from the hip. In the Republican Presidential nomination debate in Tampa, Florida, when quizzed on some of his more acerbic comments, he replied:

There may be someone who is an established Republican who circulates in the cocktail circuit that would find some of my rhetoric to be inflammatory or what have you, but I’m really talking to the American citizen out there… I think American citizens are just tired of this political correctness and politicians who are tiptoeing around important issues. They want a decisive leader.

Both politicians claim to be straight talking, delivering unpalatable truths. Yet there is a world of difference in the political strategies they are pursuing. Miliband seems to be deliberately provoking his (actual) audience, in order to disseminate a message to the wider public – alienating his party base to reach out to floating voters. In contrast, Perry’s version of the truth seems to be pandering to rather than challenging the ideologues in his party.

There is an obvious explanation for this difference, of course. Perry is now competing in a party-based primary election. He has to win that vote in order to go before the national electorate, so it is hardly surprising his definition of truth telling is inline with party doctrine. Miliband has essentially gone beyond that stage, winning the Labour leadership in September 2010. Now he needs to talk to a national electorate.

But maybe there is also a more interesting story here, and other patterns could emerge with a bigger sample of tough talking politicians. It would be interesting, for example, to note whether left-wing politicians are more prone to attacking their own parties than those on the right (maybe because of some internalised version of Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment)? If this were the case, it would not be very surprising.

The past thirty years have seen neo-liberal ideologies created on the centre-right becoming political orthodoxy across much of the western world. Parties of the left have thus found it far more necessary to overtly reject their historic ideologies, which seemed the antithesis of the so-called centre ground. It is possible that this pattern, if it existed, represents a reversal of previous patterns of “truth telling” in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when collectivist ideologies were more dominant, and it would have been politicians on the right who were required to attack their political positions.

But one thing is certain – beware of politicians claiming to tell hard truths. They almost certainly have an agenda.

The emergence of semantic polling

Originally posted on the LSE Politics and Policy blog.

While journalists speculated about whether the 2010 UK General Election was the country’s ”first Internet election”, semantic polling (using algorithms to read social media data) was under-examined. Nick Anstead and Ben O’Loughlin explore the role of semantic polling in the 2010 election and argue that it will become even more important in the future.

We have recently studied how the public reacts to offline events (especially mediated events) using social media. Our first work in this area related to the now infamous appearance of BNP leader Nick Griffin BBC Question Time in October 2009. The second piece focused on social media reactions to opinion polls published in the aftermath of the 2010 UK election Leaders’ Debates.

These papers were general in tone, simply trying to document and theorise an emerging phenomeon. However, this got us thinking – would it be possible to extract social media data and make meaningful statements about public opinion from it, in a manner similar to opinion polls or a focus group?

As we soon discovered though, this was not a wholly original idea. Dotted through 2010 election coverage were allusions to the idea that social media did indeed reflect public opinion. Post-debates, Newsnight ran segments on reactions on Twitter, while the BBC’s technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones wrote a number of blog entries about social media and public opinion. Channel 4 and national newspapers also published this information.

Data from social media in these stories was used in a number of ways. At the simplest level, individual tweets were cited as a sort of e-vox pop. Slightly more systematically, quantative data was used to indicate a high or low level of public engagement with the election, or to show the support for specific politicians through the trending of hashtags such as #IAgreeWithNick or, most famously, #NickCleggsFault.

Most interestingly though, 2010 saw the emergence of a group of firms that engaged in semantic analysis of Twitter. This semantic polling involves using algorithms to “read” tens of thousands of social media items and then coding them according to their content. The data gathered by three firms related to the Leaders’ Debate is included in the figure below.

Figure 1: Traditional pollsters and semantic researchers compared, UK General Election debates, 2010

For sake of comparison, we have also included polling numbers from three traditional pollsters (we should also add the caveat at this point that this is just a selection of the semantic data published during the election). Of course, this data and the method used to gather it is subject to a number of criticisms. As some commentators noticed at the time, Twitter was an irreverant place in comparison with the starchy seriousness of the debates (and their non-laughing audiences). But can natural language algorithms really cope with irony and sarcasm?

However, perhaps the most obvious issue relates to the type of people who use Twitter. After all, we know they are disproportionately middle class, young, educated and technology literate. Ever since Gallup predicted the results of 1936 US Presidential election, the holy grail fo public opinion research has been representativeness. Is Twitter just a Literary Digest for the modern age?

In the future, that will depend on how semantic research techniques develop. There are three possibilities. The first is that social media data breaks the polling paradigm established by Gallup, and becomes a method more akin to the mass observation, most famously used in the 1940s. As such, representativeness might become less prized and insight into the nuances of how people reason and think could become valued. Second, the passage of time (leading to the normalising of social media use and a population shift) makes social media data more representative. This is, of course, a long term process, although there is some evidence that Twitter is already more representative than it was three or four years ago.

Third is the interesting idea of seeking to apply population segmentation techniques to social media data. The key idea here is interlocking multiple pieces of data. This process is already a big part of the political and commercial world, including pollsters scaling their data to make it representative of the populations a whole and political parties paying a fortune for access to databases such as Mosaic to engage in postcode-based targeting. Think for a second about how much information people put onto social networks – who their friends are, where they work, what they read, and what films, television and music they like (as well as, increasingly, geolocational information). In other words, everything you need to build a complete picture of who they are and where they fit into the national population. If this data could be harvested and overlaid with overtly political information, analysed by natural language processing techniques, it might become possible to create far more sophisticated models of public opinion at given moments.

So we might see 2010 as the embryonic election for this kind of analysis. Indeed, retrospectively, it could seem very innocent, like Harold MacMillan struggling with television (note how he clearly forgets which camera he should be looking at about 1.25 in, and then only realizes after a few seconds). Indeed, if things were to develop along the lines of the third scenario, then a whole host of questions are raised. Do the public really understand what might be happening to information they post online, and the type of picture it could be used to create of them personally? Given that Twitter, Facebook and whatever follows them are corporate actors, what obligations do they have? How open to manipulation is the online space, given that in 2010, many political parties saw it as a battleground to be won, rather than as a method for understanding the public? Who should regulate the way the data is gathered and presented? At the moment, pollsters engage in self-regulation through the British Polling Council. No such body exists for social media analysis.

We are now continuing with the second strand of our research, which involves interviewing a number of political actors from the data campaign of 2010 – party campaign managers, journalists, data consultants, traditional pollsters and election regulators. Our preliminary prediction is this: social media data generated through
semantic analysis will be big in the 2012 US election, and integrated in to public opinion studies by the (likely) UK election of 2015.

Part rejection, part reflection

Thanks for a friend linking to it on Facebook, I was able to find the best article I have read on the London riots so far.

The argument it makes is simultaneously very simple, but also far less reductionist than the two positions (or rather caricatures of positions) we are seeing in the media. The first of these discourses – by far the dominant one, as pretty much every national politician is pushing it out – is that this is an example of mindless violence or simple criminality (for example David Cameron’s speech in the House of Commons today or this Telegraph leader column). The second – certainly less popular, but also present narrative – is to talk about the social backdrop to the riots (as occurs in this article).

Yet neither of these positions seems particularly plausible when carefully considered, since they both deprive the rioters of agency. Mindless violence is, by definition, an ill-considered act, while social explanations prioritise structure over agency. In both cases the end result is depressingly the same: inevitability, either because the rioters are simply a bad lot, or because (to employ a cliché that is in truth beyond parody) society made them do it.

An important consequence of taking either of these arguments to their logical conclusion (also raised in the blog post) is that it necessarily the deprives the events of the past few days of any meaningful politics. If we were looking for the politics of what has gone on in London and elsewhere, we come up against another simplistic duality. On the one hand, the "simple criminality" approach argues that there is no politics in this, since it is simple thuggery. The counter position is to see rioters as some kind of vanguard street movement for a broader political ideology, hell-bent on attacking capital and property, and taking on the forces law and order (or repression, depending on perspective). However, this latter position requires us to project far too much on to the rioters. There is no evidence that they have even a proto-ideology (although, to be fair, I have seen very little attempt by the media to actually try to talk to any of them, which, as this tweet on the Wikileaks feed points out, is quite strange). Crucially, I would suggest that there is no rejection of property or the consumer society to be found in the riots. Instead, the fruits of this regime seem to be coveted. Also, unlike some previous examples of civil disturbance – notably in Northern Ireland, but also in Brixton and Toxteth in 1981 – rioters, at least in the latter days of the riots, seem far less keen to want to fight with police, but instead avoid them (this is ironic, given that the original spark for the event).

Yet it seems wrong to suggest that there is no politics in what is happening across the country. The Disorder of Things blog post argues that there is value understanding them through the philosopher Guy Debord, and his work The Society of Spectacle. Debord argues that mass mediated society has destroyed meaningful social associations and left only superficial performance. Meera and Joe argue that, in the context of the riots, transgression:

"[I]s the deliberate, obscene transgression, the planned aggression, the fearless Fuck You, and above all, its enjoyment. It is the last bit which is the most indigestible and ugly, and therefore roundly ignored or bracketed, but also the most important in terms of what it means as a political statement: in short, we are not like you, we do not fear you, we have no stake in this place, we will take what we want, and we will enjoy it."

This is a valuable insight, and takes us beyond any of the reductionist understandings listed above. It also seems to be born out in the reaction of citizens to the riots, as reported by the media. The events have certainly shown the amazing resourcefulness of people, notably through the #riotscleanup hashtag. At these events, as Zoe Williams noted in The Guardian today, the language used has emphasised the difference between honest, hard-working folk (those who follow the rules of society) and the rioters (those who transgress). Crucially, the former group has done everything it can to emphasise the "otherness" of the latter. Think for example of the photograph of the women wearing a t-shirt proclaiming that "looters are scum" (which by definition means something that is separate) or the interview with the BBC, in which a local businesswomen described them as "feral rats".

However heartfelt though, I would argue that such sentiments are very dangerous (and in so doing, disagree with the Disorder of Things blog post in one respect). As well as being transgressive, it seems that the riots are also simultaneously a hyper extreme version of values and failings common in our own society, looking arrogantly, angrily back at us. I am reminded of the 1978 zombie film, The Dawn of the Dead directed by George Romero (IMDB details here). The premise is simple: a group of post-zombie apocalypse survivors hide out in a shopping mall as civilisation slowly collapses around them. The smartness of the film is to be found in the social satire, and the juxtaposition of the mindless zombies and mindless consumers. Simultaneously then, the zombie manages to be both an alien, transgressive monster but also a little bit too like us for comfort.

The same might be said of the rioters. Certainly, sometimes the most transgressive act can be to take values that we encounter (be it in politics, business, or just going about our own business everyday) – selfishness, isolation, aggression – and magnify them manifold and project them back at us. This is not to suggest a moral equivalence between the individual acts (and nor should any of this be taken as an apologia for the riots), but instead simply to point out there is a link. If one wants some examples of this, look no further than the solutions to the riots being advocated by citizens on Facebook, Twitter, and newspaper comment boards, including the deployment of the army, water cannons, plastic bullets and shoot to kill (actually, I should note that the latter idea is not just a social network fad, but actually advocated by one of our esteemed Members of the European Parliament). On top of this, there are a variety of "homebrew" solutions being advocated, which essentially amount to vigilantism. To be clear, the point I am making is not wholly about action (although there have been some disturbing reports emerging about mob justice, especially when stirred up by elements of the far right), but much more about rhetoric and tone. People have a right to defend them homes, businesses and family, and the police have a job to do. What is so disturbing about following the riots via social media is the relish and vitriol with which people are calling for violence against – as they see it – the other. It is almost as if they enjoy such violence.

Of course, in response to this, one might argue that there is a huge amount of difference between "saying" and "doing". And they of course would be right. But that does not mean that they cannot exist on the same scale, and in the same universe. When the dust has settled and politicians, policy-makers and citizens start to think about what these events mean for policy and what they say about our society, that is an idea that must not be lost.


Communicating the coalition

Cross-posted on the LSE Politics and Policy blog:

The combination of coalition government and the modern media is unprecedented in UK political history. Dr Nick Anstead considers the relationship between coalition government and the media since May 2010, looking back to Stanley Baldwins announcement coalition government of 1931, and to the present coalitions relationship with 24 hour news and online media.

When David Cameron and Nick Clegg brokered the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition agreement in early May 2010 they made history, as the UK has not had a formal peacetime coalition government formore than 70 years. British politics has changed in many ways since the 1930s, and it is certainly true that some of the most dramatic developments have taken place in the realm of political communication. In 1931, Stanley Baldwin explained the terms of the coalition through Pathé, whereas Cameron and Clegg gave their now famous (or infamous, depending on perspective) Rose Garden press conferencein the full glare of the 24 hour rolling news – and that’s not to mention the internet.

So at this junction, it seems like a good idea to ask how the media and coalition government as co-existing, and if any patterns are emerging.

The language of coalition remains contested

What gives a particular government a mandate to rule? In the past, this seemed an easy question – gaining a majority of MPs in the House of Commons (of course, this answer does neglect the matter of the popular vote). However, the 2010 results, and post-election negotiations raised important issues – had David Cameron “won” the election, and earned the right to form a government? Could Gordon Brown stay as Prime Minister despite Labour “losing” the election?

This contestation over language has continued, most notably in Labour spin doctor Tom Baldwin’s call that the media to refer to a “Conservative-led government” rather than a “coalition”. This request has gained some traction, as Figure 1 shows, with the term cropping up a couple of times. Interestingly, although perhaps predictably a significant division across the political spectrum emerged here, with The Mirror, The Guardian and The Morning Star being the dominant users of the term.

Figure 1

I was very struck by the BBC College of Journalism website page which offers guidance on reporting the coalition, touching on how to cover dissenting voices within parties and the idea of ‘division’. On the one hand, the very existence of this page points to something out of the ordinary which requires consideration. However, many of the videos and some of the guidance stress the need for journalists to concentrate on time-honoured values of the profession.

The Liberal Democrats are getting a lot of coverage

As the Figure 2 illustrates (constructed by searching five national newspapers for articles that reference his name more than three times), Nick Clegg is mentioned frequently in the media. I do not have comparative data, but I suspect that his name appears more than previous Liberal Democrat leaders in the first year of any new parliament. The bad news for Clegg though is that he gets far more coverage when things go wrong – such as the start of protests over cuts in October 2010, or following the AV defeat and local election losses in May 2011.

Figure 2

That said, I would be cautious about assuming all the coverage of the Liberal Democrats is bad news. Using the same search criteria, I pulled up newspaper articles for the week before the conference and put them in a tag cloud (Figure 3). Of course, without a proper comparison, we have no way of knowing if this is a typical week, but the words that I had expected to see – maybe “unpopular”, “disliked” etc – were not there. Instead, there is a picture painted of Clegg being at the heart of government and being written about as important to the various policy debates that are on-going.

Figure 3 – Tag cloud for news articles prior to the Liberal Democrat conference

The coalition is changing established political communication institutions

Following the election campaign, journalists regularly asked questions on policy items that were present in the party manifestoes but were then dropped from the coalition’s platform. There is a line of argument which suggests that such questioning is the product of a failure to understand coalition politics. However, it could be argued that the “but it was in your manifesto” question could be re-interpreted to make it relevant during a coalition administration.

Ultimately, the actual text of a manifesto is not what is important when the public make their judgements on politicians. What is rather more important is how politicians seek to communicate their political positions through sound bites and images. Essentially, we are dealing with mediatized manifestoes. To take an obvious example, Liberal Democrats may claim that they went into negotiations with the Tories aiming to achieve their four key manifesto goals (namely fair taxes; a fair chance for every child; a fair future, creating jobs by making Britain greener; and fair deal for you from politicians). By implication, issues to do with higher education funding are excluded from being a top priority in the discussions that led to the formation of the government. However, such an argument is tenuous, given the way in which the Liberal Democrats’ positions were presented by the media (with, it should be noted, the complicity of the party). I suspect far more of the public would have associated the Liberal Democrats with the pledge to end tuition fees than with any of their top four manifesto pledges, simply because of how the message was disseminated. This must be near the root of the party’s current problems.

A new form of questioning

What does all this mean in practical terms? In part, the style of questioning journalists adopt needs to change. Instead of saying that something was “in the manifesto” when policies are cut adrift, they should be asking politicians before an election which policies are non-negotiable. Afterwards, they should hold them accountable not just for the content of their manifesto, but also for the images and tone used to convey it. If – as I would suggest is likely – coalitions are going to become a more prominent part of our political landscape, then this is a form of questioning we will have to think about.